Review of Devils & Thieves

Thanks to Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Devils & Thieves. All opinions are my own.

Devils & Thieves is a YA fantasy about kindleds, people who have magical abilities, who are also in motorcycle gangs. Sort of like the older version of the Harry Potter kids with magic but without the wands joins Sons of Anarchy-lite. Sort of. I know this sounds strange. (It felt a little gimmicky and arbitrary to me.)

Here’s the premise. Jemmie Carmichael is the eighteen-year-old protagonist of this novel. She is a kindled who does not know how to use her magic to its full potential. She is best friends with Alex, whose brother Crowe is the leader of the Black Devils the motorcycle gang that Jemmie’s family has been associated with in the past. In addition, Jemmie has a spotty past with Crowe which causes her significant angst. As the novel progresses, the Black Devils get ready for a festival where rival gangs roll into town and conflict ensues.

This book is standard fare for soapy YA novels with magical beings. (Disclaimer: I love soapy YA novels with an element of magic. Yes, please!) Honestly, in the opening chapters I was ready to put the book down. These chapters were ineffective and disjointed in explaining this unknown world. When I read fantasy like this, I like the setting and the main aspects of the magical world to be clearly explained at the beginning so I can construct the world in my mind. These beginning chapters did not do this–the magical world felt muddled and confusing. I almost abandoned the book altogether.

Devils & Thieves does get more interesting in later chapters. I enjoyed the overarching story, although there is nothing new or inventive in the narrative as it unfolds. It feels pretty formulaic and surface. The characters have little depth, even though it feels like the author is attempting to give them depth with common plot points such as avenging a loved one’s death and battling personal demons. None of these attempts land particularly well, and thus I felt disconnected from the characters.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, this book isn’t bad. I did find myself wanting to keep reading. I also enjoyed the way the magical element is presented in the story. The magic is divided into different classifications with kindleds only being able to naturally perform a particular type of magic. However, they can create ‘cuts’ they can share and/or sell that will allow another kindled to perform bits of magic that is not his or her own. The most complicated element of this book is the magic, because of all the different types with unfamiliar names. I found myself having to look back in the book to reread to remind myself which magical name went which classification.

This is not a ground-breaking YA book, but it is okay. The audience it is intended for will likely eat it up. Crowe, Jemmie’s male counterpart, is mysterious, sexy, and damaged, which creates all kinds of angst that will delight the audience for this book.

One more note about Devils & Thieves: It has a lot of profanity and underaged drinking in it. At times, both feel gratuitous and excessive. So, if you are a teacher or a parent be aware of this. The book is fine for high school, but it would be a complete judgement call for middle school.

Bottom line: For me as a grown-up, I give it a 2/5. Looking through the lens of the YA crowd, I would bump my rating to 2.5/5. There is better YA out there, but I think there is an audience for this book, especially those who enjoyed books like Twilight and the read alikes it inspired.

Review of Girls Made of Snow and Glass

This book was highly anticipated by yours truly. I saw it on Bookstagram (that is Instagram for bookish types), and I could not wait to get my hands on it. In fact, I pre-ordered it, so it showed up on my doorstep the day it was released. I also set up a buddy read with one of my Bookstagram pals.(She is one of the two Priscilla’s at the @2.ps.in.a.bookstagram handle on Instagram.) If you haven’t done a buddy read, I highly recommend it. So much fun!

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. It is touted as a feminist retelling, but I am confused on that point. (More on that later.)

The story is centered around Lynet, the Snow White character, and Mina, the stepmother. The chapters in the book alternate between Lynet and Mina’s perspectives and also alternate between present and past. Lynet and her family hail from the North, a land covered in ice and snow. Whereas, Mina is from the South, a place known for its mild weather and warmth.

Lynet is a precocious, but sheltered youngster, whose father, King Nicholas, will do anything to keep out of harm’s way. Lynet rebels against these constraints, as evidenced in the first few scenes of the book when she is scaling a castle wall to spy on a newcomer to the castle, Nadia, the royal surgeon.  Mina is a southerner, who is hungry for power, and eager to break ties with her cruel magician father.

As the story progresses, both of these women fight to become what they think they ought to be, to find their true selves and finally, to define what their relationship means. The story follows Lynet as she discovers life outside the castle walls and searches for answers about her beginnings. On the other hand, Mina fights to win the love of an unreachable man and maintain control of a kingdom that is not hers.

I have so many thoughts about this book. Some of the bloggers that I respect most have loved this book. And, while I didn’t hate it, I also didn’t love it. Here’s why. First, the characters felt one dimensional. I didn’t feel moved by Mina and Lynet’s relationship for most of the book. At times, I would even describe myself as bored. Second, there is a “relationship” between Lynet and Nadia which seems forced and also one dimensional. The relationship is not developed over the course of the novel, and by the end, it seems odd as to how close the two have become.

The biggest issue for me in this book, is the depth of characters. Even though this is a retelling of a fairy tale, I was hoping for more depth in the characters and the story. There is so much untapped potential in both the characters and the story that it left me feeling unfulfilled as a reader.

That being said, I did not hate this book, and I was invested in the story, and curious to see how it played out. I don’t feel like it was particularly “feminist.” Nor do I think just because there is mention of a relationship between Lynet and Nadia that it is particularly progressive. A lot of the story revolves around the relationships of Lynet and Mina with the men in their lives (King Nicholas and Felix). The story didn’t feel as new and as feminist as I wanted it to, if that makes sense. The last one-fourth of the story was my favorite part, and the section where I felt most invested in the characters and the outcome of the story.

Bottom Line: For me, this was an average book with above average potential. I think fans of this genre will eat it up, and for the young adult audience it is intended for, it will be well received. This is another book that even though I would rate it as average, I would not hesitate to put in my classroom library. My rating is 3/5.

 

Review of Caraval

Okay, time for some honest talk. I have been reading some heavier books lately, and I just needed a YA fantasy book to cleanse my palate and gear me up for more heavy reading I have coming up in the near future. YA fantasy books are my absolute favorite for a good reading “palate cleanse.”

Caraval by Stephanie Garber did not disappoint. It was exactly the read I was looking for to whisk me a away to somewhere fantastical, whimsical, and intriguing. It hit all the right notes for me.

The story is centered around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella (Tella) who live with their controlling, horrible, abusive father, the governor of the fictional, Conquered Isle of Trisda. Caraval is five night magical, mysterious, and adventurous game hosted by the elusive Legend.  Scarlett writes to Legend for many years asking for tickets for herself and Tella in hopes of attending and participating in this mysterious game. Days before Scarlett is scheduled to be married to a man her father has promised her to, she receives a letter from Legend granting her request with three tickets for entry into Caraval, one for her sister, one for her, and one for her fiance, who she has never met and whose name she does not know.

Scarlett is the main protagonist throughout the course of the novel, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It becomes clear that Caraval is a place where reality blends with magic, and it is difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the game.

There is love (what is a YA fantasy without some angst and love?), there is suspense, there is a magical darkness that felt unique to me compared with other fantasy I have read. I hesitate to say more about this book, because spoilers would be the worst for this story, and it is difficult to say more without spoilers.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you enjoy YA fantasy, it is an interesting story with a dark element that I didn’t anticipate, but enjoyed. The writing is solid, and at times, the descriptions of the world of Caraval are stellar. I like the way the author plays with the time period in this book. Since time is described in ways such as “Year 55, Elantine Dynasty,” the time period is unknown. It feels like the past to me, because of the way the clothing is described and Scarlett’s mannerisms. But that is the beauty of fantasy–time period does not have to be defined. I also really love the way the love between the two sisters is established and developed within the story.

If I could change one thing about the book it is that the characters felt flat and it would have been nice to know a little bit more about some of the major characters to better understand their motivations (again, I don’t want to name character names because EEK! spoilers), but overall Caraval is an engaging read that I would recommend to other fantasy enthusiasts. It is propelled more by its intriguing plot than by its characters, but that is okay with me for this type of story. If I still had my own classroom, I would snap this up in a second, because this is a book that teenage fantasy fans will love (think fans of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Sarah J. Maas’s series). And there are characters that teens will love and root for.

Bottom Line: I give it a solid 4/5 (mostly for the unique (to me) storyline). For middle grades, be aware that while there is no cursing and no sexually explicit scenes, there are a few scenes with sexual overtones, but nothing too racy. There are also a couple of scenes that contain violence which may be disturbing for younger readers.

 

A Review of Hilde Cracks the Case: Hero Dog!

Thanks to the Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Hilde Cracks the Case: Hero Dog! All opinions are my own.

Hilde is a precocious young journalist investigating a theft on her street, Orange Street. The story follows her investigation as she questions neighbors to find out who is responsible for a break-in in her neighborhood. Her big sister and partner, Izzy, is along for the ride, snapping pictures of potential clues. Who has committed the crime, and will Hilde get her story in time for her 6:30 deadline? All will be answered by the conclusion of the story.

What a delightful book for young readers, and a great foray into the mystery genre for readers who haven’t been exposed to mysteries. This book is well done and smart. I enjoyed it. As a gauge, I had my nine-year-old son read it, and he really enjoyed it. Even though he usually prefers books whose protagonists are male, he liked the mystery and the fact that Hilde is an investigative journalist (he didn’t use the words–“investigative journalist”–he IS a fourth grader, after all!) His direct quote on the book is, “I liked the mystery. When I read it I though every new character was the thief. I thought it was cool that Hilde and her sister worked together. My favorite character was Zeus, because he barked like Zeus’s thunder.” (Side note: My son is really into Percy Jackson, so the name of the dog could have (did) affect his choice of favorite character.)

I love that the book is based on a real-life girl who actually publishes her own newspaper called the Orange Street News. (Click the link to see her site.) Not only is the story great, but Hilde provides a great example for youngsters of loving something, in this case, journalism, and going for it.

Bottom line: Love the book, and love that it is based on a real-life girl. If you have young readers (ages 5-9), they should definitely read it. My rating is 5/5.

 

A Review of Girls Who Code Book #1: The Friendship Code

Thanks to the Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Girls Who Code Book #1: The Friendship Code. All opinions are my own.

Lucy is a middle school student who is desperate to learn to code so that she can create an app that will help her sick uncle. She joins the school coding club, but is soon disappointed when after the first meeting members have not even touched a computer. Dissatisfied, Lucy complains to her parents and old brother, Alex, who advise patience. Dissatisfied once again, Lucy decides to try her hand and teaching herself to code. That is, until mysterious notes begin showing up on her locker written in code. She enlists help from her friends to figure out what the notes mean and who could be writing them. Is it Alex? A friend? Who could it be?

Girls Who Code Book #1:The Friendship Code is a mild, straightforward story with the ultimate goal of introducing young girls to coding. The characters are likable and the friendships presented in the book are standard fare for this genre.

This book would be an excellent choice for educators who are interested in introducing coding in a unique way. Definitions and coding jargon are explained in a way that will resonate with young readers. I especially appreciate the “real-life” examples that were used within the book to explain coding in an accessible way. For example, in one scene Lucy and her friend, Erin, complete an activity in which Erin is blindfolded and Lucy has to guide her through an obstacle course using only spoken directions highlighting the importance of being clear and thorough when coding.

One caveat–on Amazon.com, the grade recommendations for this are third through seventh.  The Friendship Code is definitely geared toward younger readers. Third and Fourth grade seem like a better fit for this book than middle school students. The simplicity of the plot and the lack of conflict make it better suited for upper elementary. I would not use this book for middle school students.

Bottom Line: A great introduction to coding for younger readers and for educators who are searching for an approachable way to present an introduction to coding for young girls.